The Child Knew Best

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 02, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- This is what passes for a happy ending after a sequence of family disasters. A 12-year-old boy has gotten what he wants.

Gregory Kingsley, sturdy and unshakable in the face of courtroom lawyers in Florida, has a new family, a new name and a new life. The boy who went from mother to father to pillar to post in the foster-care system is now permanently home as Shawn Russ.

More to the point, the child who will be forever known as the son who ''divorced'' his parents, has grabbed a chance to reach his own goal: ''I'm doing this for me so I can be happy.''

Happiness is not guaranteed, of course, and happy endings do not always stay that way. It doesn't take a seer to wonder how he will wrestle over his lifetime with his new-old identity and new-old families.

But in its extended form, this was a story ripe enough for a Dickensian novel. There was enough family pathos to make the term ''dysfunctional family'' sound like an antiseptic label in the dictionary of psychobabble. And everything has changed.

Now George Russ -- a man neglected by his own father, a lawyer with eight children who met Gregory at a home for abused and neglected boys -- has a new adopted son.

Now Rachel Kingsley -- a high school dropout who gave birth at 19 to a premature Gregory, a divorced mother, poor, perhaps abused, certainly neglectful -- has been legally severed from her son.

And now Jeremiah and Zachariah Kingsley -- who also did time in foster care and live with the mother whom the court ruled neglectful -- no longer have a brother named Gregory.

The importance of the case is not that it granted one boy a so-called ''divorce.'' It's that for once, the sound of a child's voice was heard above the din of adult concerns. For once, when the family and the state both miserably failed him, a child was allowed to sue and speak for his own best interests.

The case, even more than the judgment, cast light on some hard dilemmas about families that fall apart and about a child-welfare system with so many cracks that it lets the kids keep on falling.

It raised questions about when to support biological families and when to give up on them. About how much time a troubled parent may need to get his or her life together again, and how little time a child has. About the damage done when the state prematurely severs the ties between parent and child and the damage done when it takes too long.

These are not new issues. When Rachel Kingsley portrayed herself as a mother whose chief crime was poverty, it struck a chord. She is not the first parent to express bewildered anger that the state would pay money for foster care when she could have used it for parent care.

When a stream of witnesses described her as a woman who drank and smoked marijuana, slept with men for money and left the kids for days on end, it struck a nerve. They are not the first neighbors, friends or family members who want to rescue children.

When the state workers described the rock and hard place of their foster-care mandate, it had a dismal familiarity. On the one hand, they are supposed to give priorities to biological families, allow parents time to restore their ties. On the other hand they are told that children should not languish in foster families.

This time, the deciding voice belonged to the one person who was an expert on his life. It was Gregory who cut through the debate about neglect. Whatever his mother's troubles or intentions, for 18 months of foster care, he testified, she never phoned or wrote: ''I thought she forgot about me. I thought she didn't care about me.'' Whatever the pros and cons about biological families and adoption, he said with remarkably emotional clarity: ''I just want a place to be.''

I don't know how much of a legal precedent he has set. There are some 420,000 children in foster care. How many of those children can wend their way to or through the legal system? How many adults want to adopt them?

In some ways Gregory's story is a foster child's favorite fantasy. But it may have a greater impact on our national consciousness than our law. We live now in a time of renewed emphasis on the importance of the traditional family, the biological family, parental authority. Children's rights are often dismissed as the dangerous and disruptive tools of people who want to destroy families.

In Florida however, we met a boy who wanted the right to create a family. He reminded us that every family story is different. What matters most is not biology, but belonging. This time, it was the child who knew best. Just call him Shawn.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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